Tag Archives: book reviews

Review: Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett

Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us still sits on my TBR pile but I was interested in the idea of her second novel, especially when it was announced that Kathryn Williams would be providing an accompanying soundtrack.

Greatest Hits is the story of Cass Wheeler, a retired folk-pop singer-songwriter from the 1970s who takes a day to listen to her back catalogue and choose 16 songs to represent her life and work. As she does so, the story of her life emerges and we find out more about why each was written and what Cass has gone through to get to where she is, isolated and alone, but about to emerge with an album of new material.

Each chapter starts with a song and charts a part of Cass’s life, from her entrance into the world as the daughter of a vicar who christens her Maria because he feels she should, leaving Cassandra as her middle name. Cass’s mother has depression and leaves her husband and daughter to run away to Canada when Cass is a young girl. This act changes Cass’s life – emotionally in ways she takes years to recover from, and physically as she moves from her devastated father to live with her aunt and uncle. It is there that she takes her first real steps to a musical career.

Told purely from Cass’s point of view, the book is nevertheless a clear-eyed account of the mistakes we make as we get through life, and is unskimping on the details – the drug taking, drinking, domestic abuse. This is a novel about consequences, how we live with them, and about the elusive second chance.

Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett is published on 15 June 2017 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson

Review: Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett

Laura Barnett’s The Versions of Us still sits on my TBR pile but I jumped at the chance of reading this because I LOVE the idea of a book with an accompanying soundtrack. There aren’t many books that do this; there are variations, obviously, such as playlists featuring songs mentioned in all the Rebus books, for example, and Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music has an accompanying CD. Greatest Hits, however, has an accompanying soundtrack that was written especially for the book –  performed by the lovely Kathryn Williams – and I’m looking forward to hearing the songs when my pre-order arrives.

Greatest Hits is the story of Cass Wheeler, a retired folk-pop singer from the 1970s who sits one day and evaluates her life while choosing her favourite songs from her back catalogue. Each chapter starts with the lyrics to the song and tells of a period in Cass’s life starting with her childhood as the daughter of a vicar whose mother suffered from depression and PND and then ran away to Canada with another man. The fallout from this changed Cass’s life, emotionally and practically, as she moved to live with her uncle and aunt.

We know from the present-day parts of the book that Cass has undergone some kind of tragedy that has meant she retreated from the world and that she is about to re-emerge with some new material. The details of this are made clear as the book progresses, in heartbreaking fashion.

Told purely from Cass’s point of view, Greatest Hits is nevertheless a clear-eyed account of mistakes made – and is unskimping on details, including drugs and domestic abuse -and about consequences and how to live with them. If this sounds pretty depressing, don’t depair – it’s a really enjoyable read.

Thanks to NetGalley for their advance copy. Greatest Hits is published on 15 June 2017 and the accompanying CD by Kathryn Williams is also available on that date.

Damian Barr’s Literary Salon

Some of you may know of my love for the US author Richard Russo. When I heard he was making a rare UK appearance at Damian Barr’s Literary Salon at the Savoy I knew I had to make the effort to go. A Monday night and a trip from Nottingham and back for work the next day – all doable with planning and caffeine.

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Classy bird me, here’s a picture I took in the women’s toilets. Aren’t they palatial?

Imagine, if you will, a local government worker with a book to sell, a working parent whose little spare time is spent reading and writing, a comfortable if tiring routine to the days, little social life, an introvert with a hint of shyness (laying it on thick but still…) Now imagine The Savoy, all 1930s decor, hushed corridors and doormen, the Lancaster ballroom a swirling light blue, plaster detail, gilding and mirrored doors. FULL of people many of whom know each other, all of whom appear to be fully au fait with their surroundings. And take a breath.

Obviously, there was no need to worry. Everyone was friendly. The room was a lovely atmosphere and I sat and chatted to those on my table – all seemed to think I was slightly bonkers to be here from Nottingham for the evening, and none of whom had heard of Richard Russo before. I did my best to recommend books for them to start with, and said he was very funny.

The Literary Salon was set up just as I left the book industry so while it was my first time, it’s well established as a high class literary event – “always a good night out” said the man at my table. I sipped a lovely Valpolicella – recommended by another Damian Barr project A Book and a Bottle – to be drunk while reading Jessie Burton’s The Muse (on my TBR pile so now I will be forced to buy some wine – such a hard life). Fine writers, good wine, lovely surroundings – it’s all you could want if you fancy a bit of the high life once in a while.

Damian appeared with a flourish from behind the stage curtains, nattily dressed in bow tie and light blue trousers. He gave a sparkling introduction, referencing Noel Coward, the importance of diversity and tolerance and mentioning the terrible events of Saturday night not far away on London Bridge. And then our first guest was up.

The joy of all literary events, of course, is that you get to hear about books and ideas that you may not otherwise come across if just browsing. I doubt I would have otherwise found Sam Leith’s book You Talkin’ to Me? or Natalie Haynes’ Children of Jocasta but they were both terrific and obviously now added to my ever-growing TBR list.

A break before the main man appeared. I was getting slightly nervous by this point as I needed to leave soon to catch my last train home. I had planned on 9.15 leaving time but we were reconvening after the break at 9pm and I’d have come all this way and barely caught what I wanted to see. It’s a literary salon, I’m not criticising, the atmosphere was much better relaxed but… eeek!

Richard Russo
Richard Russo (left) Damian Barr (right)

But then there he was, reading out a selection from Everybody’s Fool, and how the people at my table laughed. I felt vindicated in my praise. It was a lovely interview, moving in places and funny in others, or it was until I finally had to sneak out.

Now, obviously the sensible person with a trek across London to make her train at St Pancras takes a cab. I am not a sensible person and I hate cabs and avoid them wherever possible (don’t ask why – it’s completely irrational of me). A combination of running and the tube was therefore my option. As I did this, I learned a number of things:

  1. I usually run 10k twice a week so distance and endurance is not an issue but not wearing a sports bra is. Ouch.
  2. Running while trying to preserve the lemon meringue cupcakes you bought as a treat for the hubby is a lost cause.
  3. Running in a waterproof coat causes heat to build up from your body so that when you reach your destination, you sit and steam gently. A sauna from within. Such a great look.
  4. My backpack, so useful for everyday life, does not take well to running and will burst open. Say what you will about London but I know of few other cities where a strange man will step into a rain-soaked road, pick up the contents of a woman’s handbag – including smashed face powder and a tampon – and return them to her without batting an eyelid. (The northern man is too preoccupied with humour for gallantry in this way.)
  5. The Northern line from Charing Cross doesn’t go to St Pancras – only Euston where you have to catch a different train across or run down the Euston Road. No prizes for guessing which I chose.

I made the train with minutes to spare and tucked into my Savoy sandwich and smashed cupcake.

What lessons can we learn from this?

The Literary Salon events are lovely and I must come again. Next time, however, perhaps a hotel and an early morning train would be the way to go. Or even, maybe, a cab.

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

If you haven’t seen any of the pre-publication hype over this book, then you may have been living in a cave for the last few months. It’s been hyped. And so I will start by boldly stating: it is well worth the hype.

There’s a good chance that, even if you know nothing else about Lizzie Borden, you have heard the children’s rhyme she inspired: ‘Lizzie Borden took an axe, and gave her mother forty whacks, When she saw what she had done, she gave her father forty-one.’ Lizzie was tried, and acquitted, of the murder of her father and step-mother – though the acquittal was mainly on the basis that women didn’t do things like that. No one else was ever charged. It is still a mystery.

A great basis, then, for a novel. Schmidt has done her research into the crime and the time and the place and it is skilfully woven into this beauty of a book. Told from the point of view of Lizzie and her sister Emma, who was away from the family home at the time of the crime, as well as two non-family members, the maid Bridget and a further potential suspect Benjamin, you get to walk around the Borden household and try to work out what could have happened. At times the narrative is confusing, especially where Lizzie is concerned, a reflection of her tangled statements to the police. You are left wondering if she is traumatised and upset or really cunning. The other characters are more lucid in comparison and their voices help to bring a context to the family, the killings, and the town they took place in.

This is a visceral book. You might expect that from a book about a double axe murder, but it’s not just from the descriptions of the grisly deaths. Vomit features heavily, as does sweat and a general sense of unwashed bodies. Mr Borden kept the house locked and the windows closed, he didn’t have an indoor toilet plumbed in and so the household all had slops pails to empty each morning. All of this features in the book and makes the reader start to itch, feeling the fetid atmosphere of the house, you can almost smell it. The publicity features flies hovering and buzzing around and the air must have been thick with them.

Fluids. Stench. Dirt. Festering. You get the picture. This is not a happy house. Even the scene where the maid is cleaning has no effect. The oppressive atmosphere builds and at times you may have to put the book down because it gets so creepy. But not for long because you HAVE to know what happens next.

As you can see, I loved this – a really riveting read and a strong sense of atmosphere.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt is published by Tinder Press on 2 May 2017. Thanks to Tinder Books and Georgina Moore for the proof copy that enabled me to write this review.

The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull

I’m so pleased to be hosting the blog tour for Rebecca Mascull today! I really enjoyed reading The Wild Air – it’s got a great heroine and a story that sheds light on a little known part of history. Here’s my review:

We need more adventure books these days. Especially us women. I don’t mean thrillers involving dark secrets and titles with ‘girl’ in them, I don’t mean crime books, or secret missions and explosions. I mean proper adventures, heroines doing brave, bold, daring things, going further and better than others.

The Wild Air - jacketThank goodness, then, for Rebecca Mascull’s The Wild Air. It’s a proper adventure telling the story of Della Dobbs. Della is an unlikely heroine, shy and diffident at the beginning and living in the shadow of her family in Cleethorpes. Della’s father doesn’t like her very much, transferring his affection on her older brother Puck and her younger sister Cleo. When Della’s widowed Aunt Betty moves to Cleethorpes, Della finds someone who recognises her talents in engineering and love of flight. Together they work to make Della an aviatrix – one of the pioneering women flyers who made the path so much easier for later stars such as Amelia Earhart and Amy Johnson.

The book is in two distinct parts – the first is Della’s set up, flight training, and subsequent success at air shows around the country and across Europe. But then comes the First World War and Della is grounded and stuck at home instead of being allowed to help the war effort with her talent. There’s a love story too, as Della’s friend and penpal Dudley makes his feelings known. (Incidentally, we should have more pen pals in the world. Especially ones that share geeky enthusiasms.)

As the war develops, Della has to go on an adventure, even more of one than learning to fly in a man’s world. I won’t go into any more detail because of spoilers but this is what I mean by an adventure story – daring deeds, peril and bravery. Suspend your disbelief and just immerse yourself in the excitement.

The Wild Air is well researched, featuring cameos from several real aviatrixes, and there is some technical detail about the planes but fortunately (for us non-petrolhead readers) this is just the perfect amount. The story seems at once a long time ago yet startlingly relevant as we still hear about discrimination in the aviation industry. I’ve not read either of Mascull’s previous books but this has thought, passion and attention to characters in it that means I will be seeking her backlist out.

Have I mentioned the cover? When I saw the book first mentioned on social media, I loved the beautiful cover and wanted to read it without knowing what it was about. Isn’t it lovely?

The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull is published on 4 May 2017 by Hodder Books and is priced at £18.99 in hardback.

I received a free review copy via Netgalley – thank you.

March reading round up

I am so far ahead in my reading challenge this year! 23 books and counting. My knitting has lapsed to make room for it. And there were some absolute crackers this month.

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt

I will post a proper review for this once it’s published but in the meantime, pre-order it because it’s excellent.

How to Measure a Cow – Margaret Forster

I like Margaret Forster but as a novelist she did seem to blow hot and cold. This is a cold, I’m afraid. It’s got an interesting premise but she never followed through on the bit that would have held my attention the most.

A Life Between Us – Louise Walters

The second book from Louise Walters, following her enjoyable debut Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase. I have reviewed this elsewhere on the blog so you can read more here.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche – Dear Ijeawele

Bought to celebrate International Womens’ Day earlier in the month, this is a series of lessons in how to bring up a girl in this world. This is fifteen suggestions on how to view the world and to bring your daughters up to be brave and bold. Written to answer a friend who asked for advice, Adiche has a range of things to say that really resonated with me as a woman and as the mum of a girl.

After Julius – Elizabeth Jane Howard

The reading group suggestion this month, and an odd read. I love Howard’s work and this is very dense in places but wonderfully structured. I couldn’t decide if I liked any of the characters completely, they were so believably flawed – callous and sympathetic, hopeless and kind. Howard always covers darker aspects of stories than you expect for a novelist of her time, especially when it comes to matters of sex, but this renders her a strong clear voice of how far we can go to hurt each other.

The Wild Air – Rebecca Mascull

Another book that I will review on publication later this month. Beautiful cover, fascinating story. Watch this space.

Dadland – Keggie Carew

My non-fiction choice this month was a bit hard-going so it’s been read on and off all month. It’s not actually hard to read not is it too harrowing despite the subject matter but for some reason I struggled with it. Anyway, Dadland is Keggie Carew’s attempt to understand and explore her father’s life as he descends into dementia and starts to lose his memory. In part tribute, in part history, Tom Carew led a fascinating life – war guerrilla for the British in France and Burma, thrice married, businessman, friend to Patricia Highsmith, the list goes on. Keggie researches all this and intersperses the history with personal anecdotes of growing up with Tom, and looking after him as he grows less capable. Despite finding this a long read, it’s a rewarding one.

August reads

I had the luxury of reading an entire book in a weekend this month – something that never happens usually. It was due to a combination of Bank Holiday at my in-law’s house, losing the knitting pattern I was working on and nothing on the TV. What bliss. Otherwise the month was as usual – catching reading time when I could around work and childcare.

Judy Blume – In the Unlikely Event

There was a moment when I started reading this that I was staying at my mother’s house. There’s really nothing like reading a Judy Blume book in the house where you grew up to make you realise you haven’t moved on in the past 25 years at all… Anyway, this is one of Judy’s books for adults and the one she said she always wanted to write. It brings to the page an incident from her childhood, where her town witnessed three plane crashes into the town over a matter of months. The book’s narrative is spread over a number of different points of view, though many of them from young teenage girls, and this does give the reader the sense that they’re reading a YA novel. It’s none the poorer for it, and Blume’s great talent has always been to bring the pain and confusion of being a teenage girl to life. It’s no different here. There is an impending sense of doom as the narrative changes to the passengers climbing on a plane for a journey but the impact of the crashes is somehow dulled. I felt this was lacking something, but I can’t tell you what it was. Nevertheless it was an enjoyable enough read, and I did feel reunited with an old friend.

Alexandra Heminsley – Running Like a Girl

Having just started running seriously again, I picked this up for a bit of inspiration. It’s a light hearted way of looking at running by someone who’s run quite a few marathons – and her journey to that point. She also covers the parts that other running narratives may not tell you – about sports bras, what to do if you need a poo while running and how to deal with crippling self doubt. It’s fun and inspirational, and I both laughed and cried while reading it.

Karl Over Knausgaard – A Death in the Family

This was my own suggestion to my reading group this month and I’d like to apologise to them for suggesting it. I wanted to see what the hype was about. I have no idea, having read it, what the hype is about. I was reading an article earlier in the month about the old argument that women’s stories, about love and families, for example the Blume above, are often seen as ‘women’s lit’ where men writing on the same subjects will be seen as ‘literature.’ There is nothing to demonstrate this better than this piece of self indulgent tosh. When it comes down to it, so many stories about white middle class straight boys are the same – all about drinking and how long it took them to get their hand up a girl’s jumper. This was the same with extra waffle, and a few things about his dad. Later, we discover he has cast his dad off for his alcoholism and then his father dies, having drunk himself to death. (Or did he? There’s a slight mystery about the circumstances of death but god forbid Knausgaard actually tells us this bit) Then Karl and his brother return to the fmaily home to clear it up as it’s become a pigsty, with rotting crap everywhere and their senile grandmother living in the detritus. This bit was actually quite interesting but it added nothing to the character development of the narrator, Karl Ove. This has been feted as literature that blurs the boundaries between fiction and autobiography but if I was going to fictionalise my life, I’d do something ot make it a bit more interesting. And insightful.

Katherine McMahon – The Girl in the Picture

This was the second in a series, apparently, although it didn’t matter if you hadn’t read the first, which I hadn’t. Set in 1926, the heroine is one of the few female lawyers in London and therefore, you’d think, quite feisty. The story concerns two cases she takes on, one about a bunch of toffs and the other a poor family torn apart by domestic abuse. In the background, the heroine’s persona life suffers as her grandmother dies, a close friend and relative moves to France and her boss proposes marriage just as her old lover returns to town. So a lot going on. It was all quite enjoyable, except… the heroine was dreadfully passive. For someone who had fought to get herself such a prominent groundbreaking job she just sat back and let people dictate to her a lot. It all got on my nerves rather.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan – Harmless Like You

I couldn’t resist this debut novel having seen reviews on Twitter and I’m glad it was as deftly written as they suggested. The main story is of Yuki, a Japanese-American girl who decides not to return with her parents to Japan but stays in New York with friends. This is the late Sixties, and Yuki’s story is one of loneliness, isolation and, despite it not being overtly spelt out, racism. As a result, she spends far too long in an abusive relationship and struggles to be taken seriously as an artist. In the present day, we find Jay whose father has just died and left his house to Jay’s mother, Yuki, who left them when Jay was a baby. Jay must go and find her, now living in Berlin, and confront her. Jay was a self centred over grown child, in my view, though it could be that I just have issues with people who like cats as much as he did. But Yuki was far more interesting and despite needing to be shaken out of her torpor at times, the reader can at least see why she feels so stuck and so alone, so powerless, and feels for her. This is a really assured debut and I’m really quite jealous.

January – the read pile

A belated post but here’s what I read in January.

Bill Bryson – The Road to Little Dribbling

I once had dinner with Bill Bryson. I worked for Waterstone’s events team, he was on a book promotion tour and we had a two-performance night at Newark Theatre. We had a tight turnaround for food between appearances and his publicist (the lovely Alison Barrow) phoned a local restaurant, gave them our orders and asked that the food be served as soon as we arrived at a set time. We turned up, the restaurant had no knowledge of our order and we waited to be served until the food arrived leaving me about 5 minutes to eat before heading back to sell more books. At the end of the evening Bill B turned to me, shook my hand and said “I never saw anyone eat salmon risotto that fast before.”

I mention this sad tale because I never thought Bill Bryson was rude. He’s known for being a bit grumpy but all out rude, no. Until I read this. There really is no excuse for being so rude to people who work in McDonald’s – everyone knows they have to ask about fries and drinks and the like. There is no excuse being rude to serving staff or retail staff at all – but he does it. I was sadly disappointed. Very few laughs, some interesting facts (none of which I can remember now) and lots of grumping.

L.P.Hartley – The Go Between

A reading group choice for this month, I didn’t make the group due to illness so I’ve no idea what they thought of it. I thought it was… okay. I didn’t really like the protagonist, and more importantly, he didn’t seem to learn or grow as a result of the events in the book. While I appreciate the sultry build up and the tension rising with the weather, I didn’t really enjoy any of it and I’ve read so any stories that concentrate on rich people sleeping with the oiks that I wasn’t really interested. I feel like I ought to have something more to say about an English classic but I really don’t. It didn’t work for me.

Matt Haig – Reasons to Stay Alive

I devoured this in one sitting, shedding a few tears as I did so and rejoicing that it appears to be so well publicised and so well respected. It’s so incredibly important to know more about depression and how normal it is – if you are interested in finding out more this is a great place to start. Not only does it cover the facts but you get a brief glimpse inside the eloquent head of a man who has struggled with it as a condition.

Dodie Smith – The Town in Bloom

Some of Dodie Smith’s back catalogue are now being re-published in paperback and I picked this up on a recent browsing exercise in Waterstone’s. Essentially, it’s the same story as I Capture the Castle, with similar characters though perhaps they are slightly lacking in the charm that permeates I Capture the Castle. But this was entertaining and sweet, and set in theatre-land of the 1920s so of interest to me.

Excellent Women – Barbara Pym

People have been telling me to read Barbara Pym for ages and I finally got round to it. If you’ve heard that she’s a bit like Jane Austen, this is indeed true. It’s the way she covers the minutiae of women’s everyday lives. And funny. And bitchy, in a terribly polite way. If this sounds dull, it’s not.

My to be read pile this month includes two dystopian classics – pity me. Report to follow at the end of the month.

2015: Books of the Year

I am expecting masses of hardbacks as a Christmas gift – the bonus of cycling to work means that I mainly read at home and therefore don’t have to worry about carrying them – so this books of the year list is not going to feature many published this year. Instead I’ve had a look through what I actually read.

Here are the stats:

Total read – 45 1/2

Total pages – 13,735 (not including the half a book)

Male/ female ratio – 14/31 (and another male for the half book I’ve not finished yet.)

But here’s what struck me. For a start, I don’t seem to have enjoyed many of the books I read this year. Some of this is because of inflated expectations – I may be the only person this year to have read Elena Ferrante and not raved about her but how can anyone live up to that billing? Reviews and press also gave me higher expectations of Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood, AD Miller’s Snowdrops, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (link contains spoiler) and Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. And even Sarah Waters’s The Paying Guests, which I did like, was a little disappointing.

There were two themes to this year’s reading. The first was the amount of memoirs I read. I usually stick to fiction so any non-fiction is a minority but five memoirs, three and large chunk of a fourth, were about growing up. I enjoyed all of them very much: Testament of Youth, Tom and Romany, Springfield Road, Between Here and Knitwear, and The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing.

The other theme was books of short stories that were all linked to tell bigger stories. I really want to write a book like this and enjoyed all of these very much indeed: Perfect Lives (Polly Samson), When it Happens to You (Molly Ringwald) and Olive Kitteridge (Elizabeth Strout).

My favourites this year?

Ragtime – EL Doctorow (quite possibly THE Great American Novel.)

The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing – Darina al-Joundi (raw, uncomfortable, powerful, amazing.)

My 2016 reading will contain some classics – my reading group has picked The Go Between, Brave New World, 1984, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, none of which I’ve read before. (Slightly embarrassed to be my age and not read 1984 but there you go.) So there’s a start.

Review: Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell

I was walking to work through a university campus the other morning, wearing a tatty pair of sandals I can’t be bothered/ can’t afford to replace and listening to my ipod on shuffle. On came Britpop favourite Nice Guy Eddie by Sleeper and I sang to myself as I made my way down the road. It then occurred to me that I was doing exactly the same thing 20 years ago. Does nothing change?

It’s this kind of thing that I admire in other writers. It’s all very well writing tutors and those who post up writing tips on Twitter talking about giving your character seismic shifts in understanding as they progress through the book but in real life most of us are the same bewildered pi-eyed lunatics we were years ago.

Luckily we have Maggie O’Farrell to show us how it’s done. If you’re at all interested in the dynamics of family life, sibling relationships, and making the same mistakes over and over again, then this may be the book for you.

It’s 1976 and it’s bloody hot. There is legislation in place to help people through the water shortages. One morning one man sets off from home and doesn’t come back. His three children each make their way home to help their mother discover what has happened to him and each bring their own problems with them.

What I liked most about this was that, despite recreating the family unit, each of the problems were solved in some way by the characters on their own. They all need each other, to annoy and rub up against each other, but they don’t share their issues. They go off and do something about them. And in doing so, they remained at heart the same bewildered pi-eyed lunatics they were when they all lived under the same roof.

Instructions for a Heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell is available to buy in paperback